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Dr. Saltzman--

When it comes to psychology you seem very intelligent, but when you write about religion you seem so stupid. Don't you realize that without faith life is empty? Don't you realize that without fear of God people would do terrible things? Don't you realize that most people, including some who are a lot smarter than you, believe in God? What gives you the right to make yourself an authority on God?

Ronald H.

Burlington, Vt.

Dear Ronald H.--

Your letter is a bit abusive, but I will reply to it anyway since I receive so much mail on this subject--apparently my words on faith and religion touch a sore spot in many people--and my reply here will serve to answer many of those letters in general. In other words, your questions, as rudely put as they are, seem to stand for a certain attitude held by some of my visitors, and I hope that this reply will satisfy them (why do I already think that it will not?)

In the first place, a recognition of the apparent emptiness of life (emptiness, that is, beyond the struggle to survive, make a living, be sexual, consume, and participate in the usual pastimes and entertainments) is, as I see it, the beginning of intelligence. In my experience, if one stays with that recognition of emptiness, a curious thing happens. When that emptiness is felt, and allowed to be, ones focus changes from a life oriented towards a goal--the goal of eventual "salvation" or reward--to a life which understands that there is no purpose in concentrating on some eventual salvation or reward when the very living of life is a reward in itself. In other words, the focus changes from the attitude that life is a test which must be passed if one is to arrive in heaven, to an understanding that there is nowhere to get to, nowhere to arrive, and nothing to pursue (beyond, that is, participating in ordinary life, both its sorrows and joys, and enjoying the opportunity to be here on this planet along with all the other sentient beings). As the excellent sage, Nisargadatta, put this, "You realize that the road is the goal and that you are always on the road, not to reach a goal, but to enjoy its beauty and its wisdom." This attitude, by the way, does not rule out "God," but just understands that there are things which human beings cannot know for certain, and so refuses to believe claims about them. In other words, that attitude prefers to not know anything at all about ultimate matters so that whatever is revealed by life itself can be seen, felt, and understood on its own terms, rather than by reliance upon doctrine or "faith" in stories in a book.

As to your second point, which says that without fear of "God"* people would do terrible things: people already do terrible things, and most of the terrible things they do are done by people who profess to believe in "God", and profess of course to fear "God", since "God" has the power to punish one for eternity (much worse than a life sentence!). I always wonder why a so-called "loving God" would become such a potent object of fear, but that is another discussion. In fact, many of the terrible things people do are done under the absurd impression that "God" wants them done, although how anyone can claim with a straight face to know what "God" wants is almost beyond comprehension.

Finally, you say that people a lot smarter than me believe in "God," so who am I to disagree? I won't get into a debate about my right to express ideas (not just about "God," but about anything at all) on this, my own web page, or anywhere, for that matter. Instead, I will leave you with some words on this subject offered by a few people who are almost universally acknowledged not as just smart, but brilliant. These were sent to me just recently by another visitor to this site. Please read these carefully, with an open mind, and just try to get the flavor of this. Remember, these are not my words, but those of some famously bright people:

"Religions are all alike--founded upon fables and mythologies." [Thomas Jefferson]

"If we believe absurdities, we shall commit atrocities." [Voltaire]

"Faith means not wanting to know what is true." [Nietzsche]

"I cannot believe in the immortality of the soul.... No, all this talk of an existence for us, as individuals, beyond the grave is wrong. It is born of our tenacity of life – our desire to go on living … our dread of coming to an end." [Edison]

"The Bible is not my book nor Christianity my profession. I could never give assent to the long, complicated statements of Christian dogma." [Lincoln]

"It appears to me (whether rightly or wrongly) that direct arguments against Christianity and theism produce hardly any effect on the public; and freedom of thought is best promoted by the gradual illumination of men's minds which follows from the advance of science." [Darwin]

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© 2007 Robert Saltzman

"I cannot imagine a God who rewards and punishes the objects of his creation, whose purposes are modeled after our own -- a God, in short, who is but a reflection of human frailty. Neither can I believe that the individual survives the death of his body, although feeble souls harbor such thoughts through fear or ridiculous egotism." [Einstein]

"Say what you will about the sweet miracle of unquestioning faith, I consider a capacity for it terrifying and absolutely vile." [Kurt Vonnegut]

"Religion is a byproduct of fear. For much of human history, it may have been a necessary evil, but why was it more evil than necessary? Isn't killing people in the name of God a pretty good definition of insanity?" [Arthur C. Clarke]

"Religion is based . . . mainly on fear . . . fear of the mysterious, fear of defeat, fear of death. Fear is the parent of cruelty, and therefore it is no wonder if cruelty and religion have gone hand in hand. . . . My own view on religion is that of Lucretius. I regard it as a disease born of fear and as a source of untold misery to the human race." [Bertrand Russell]

"Even faith in God is only a stage on the way. Ultimately, you abandon all, for you come to something so simple that there are no words to express it." [Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj]

By the way, Ronald, I do not offer these quotes to start a quoting contest, for I understand that you already know many other clever words which support your point of view. That's what is called "diversity of opinion." My purpose is merely to show you that not every approach to the deeper questions which refuses to rely on so-called "faith"** is "stupid," as you wrote. As for myself, I prefer to view experience without any fixed approach--as it unfolds in this very moment, that is. I do not view as particularly intelligent an insistance on the validity of a set of undemonstrated, and undemonstratable doctrines which posit the existance of a "creator" to whom human beings owe unquestioning obedience. And even less intelligent, in my opinion, is the attitude which accepts some person or persons as expert or authoritative on what "God" wants us humans to do and not to do:

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Naturally, as a psychologist, I understand that the human mind has evolved over the countless millennia an apparent need for a kind of tribalism, or "in-group/out-group" mentality, which, obviously, is perfectly supported by organized religion. That is what makes the "we are saved and you aren't" mentality so seductive and so insidious: it plays right in to some deep human fear of being left out of the tribe. But that does not mean that the apparatus and authority of religion (the "holy" books, the hierarchical churches and mosques, all of it) are owed some special protection against skepticism which is not afforded to any other kind of ideas, Why, for example, is it acceptable to point out the foolishness in a fable about litle green extraterrestials, but expressing a similar skepticism towards the idea that, for example, "unlike any other human being Jesus is the son of 'God'" draws accusations of lack of respect for the so-called "faith" of the believer. Why should such credulity be respected at all? Does the fact that certain people--even if they are millions of people--want or need to believe something, anything, make it true, valid, or sacred beyond question? Think about it.

Be well.


*quotation marks because no one knows to what this word refers, if to anything at all beyond a bizarre superstition which began in pre-scientific times and continues to this day.

**quotation marks on the word "faith", because to me the word "faith," in its ordinary religious usage, is really another nicer sounding term for "credulity," which means a tendency to be too ready to believe that something is true.

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p.s. [February 3, 2007] A few days after I first uploaded this page, a band of tornados swept through central Florida, destroying many homes as well as killing and injuring numerous human beings--still undetermined how many--and countless other animals such as the seventeen whooping cranes which were some of the precious few survivors of that severely endangered species. These cranes had been led to Florida all the way from Wisconsin by an ultralight aircraft in Operation Migration Whooping Cranes. Although her house collapsed around her, the owner of one home, a women in her 60s, survived. In a TV interview with her and her pastor, the pastor declared that "only the merciful hand of God" had saved her life. Why is such amazing foolishness worthy of any respect whatsoever? In my view the pastor is a nincompoop. After all, if the "hand of God" saved her life, it must have been the same "merciful hand" that destroyed entire neighborhoods, maiming and killing all those people and other living beings. Somehow the pastor never got around to mentioning that fact, nor would he be willing, I imagine, even to deal with it, except, perhaps if he were really pressed, by bringing the "Devil" into the conversation (since God is only "good," there must be a Devil to account for all the death, destruction, and killing of innocents). In my experience, authentic human intelligence does not even begin to function until one awakens from this kind of superstitious hypnotic spell erroneously called "faith."

The Whooping Cranes that "God" Destroyed:

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